“We’re here to help, Shannon,” the confident young man overseeing the kennel assured me as I struggled to get the collar off a cranky young beagle I had just taken out for a walk. The frustration must have been written all over my face, prompting him to gently enter the dog run and assist me.
A host of emotions arose with my battle with the beagle: disappointment (why can’t I figure this damn collar out?!); fear (don’t bite!); impatience (that cute little boxer one dog run over is waiting for me!), to name a few. But here’s the cool part: since volunteering at an animal rescue near my home, my yoga practice has deepened big time. So has my life. How is that? You might wonder.
What does scooping poop and traipsing Fido through the mud have to do with my daily power hour? A lot, in fact. Here are a few powerful lessons my new four-legged friends are teaching me about my practice, and my life:
1. Struggling is a choice.
There were two very different approaches to removing that beagle’s collar. Mine was to wrestle and yank it off as fast I could to escape what I perceived as a scary situation. How many times do we do this in a pose, or unexpected life circumstance we aren’t comfortable with?
Imagine how different a typically wobbly Half-Moon would feel if you approached it slowly, patiently, and with a sense of curiosity instead of fear? Or how an ill-tempered co-worker would respond to a random offer of assistance on an assignment, instead of an audible sigh for not ‘doing their job’.
As I observed the patient kennel overseer take his time in removing the beagle’s collar – alternating between gentle strokes behind the dog’s ears, reminders of ‘good boy’ – I realized that my struggle got me absolutely nowhere.
2. Lose the empty talk.
Without words to communicate, my new pup friends do so through their bodies. The sweet Chesapeake Retriever likes to nuzzle his snout into my thigh. The hyper Albino Boxer wags his tail wildly when he sees coming. That Taco Bell-looking dog rolls onto his back awaiting a loving belly rub. When I teach yoga now, I’m paying closer attention to how my words might sound like a script. Or when space for students to hear themselves breathe is warranted (more often than I thought!).
We humans say ‘I love you’, but these pups are showing me how powerful it is to show love without words – a genuine smile and eye contact, a tight embrace, a stroke of the head, to those I care about.
3. Keep the faith.
I am going on year five of daily handstand practice. I still only have about 50% stick rate. These dogs remind me – every time I visit – that they believe. They believe a new loving home is on the horizon, and continue their work of becoming more adoptable with daily socializing drills and interaction with other dogs and humans. So too are my handstands. As B.K.S. Iyengar says, “practice, practice, practice, and all is coming.”
4. Don’t judge me.
That clipped-eared Pit Bull stared intently through the glass at me, waiting for a much-needed recess break to the big field outside. Yes this breed, as some others, have had their share of bad press with reported tragedies. But I’m learning, through careful supervision in a safe environment, to let go of an unfair presumption that all pit bulls are dangerous.
How many times do we judge someone or something based on a previous experience gone bad? A nasty fall out of handstand a year ago used to result in automatically putting on the brakes with each subsequent attempt. Now, thanks to these dogs, I recognize when I’m holding back and work to power through it. And greet Zeus the Pit Bull warmly with a loving hand.
5. Get messy!
My first day at the kennel I was encouraged to leave my cute sandals at home. Looking around the kennel that day, I zeroed in on a seasoned volunteer in back. This woman was a holy mess. Her parka, shoes, pants, even her face were covered in a gumbo of mud, grass stains and doggy slobber.
Beneath it all, though, her bright blue eyes and massive smile sent me a powerful message: To really connect with these dogs, to love them like you mean it, you gotta get dirty. Roll-in-the-mud-with-them dirty. Do that, and a kennel-filled load of love in return is pretty much guaranteed.
Since volunteering, I am learning the joy of getting messy. I’m noticing how much stronger I’m getting by staying in Extended Side Angle pose when it starts to get ugly. I’m learning how making a disaster of my kitchen can lead to exciting, healthy new recipes vs. some pre-packaged unhealthy options.
So if your practice, or your life, is feeling a little stale, reach out to your four-legged pals. These down doggies have a lot of wisdom to share!